I’m just back from Georgia, Western North Carolina and Tennessee, where I was paddling and scouting a bit for some future adventures. I floated a few rivers and visited some good friends along the way.
On Sunday, I decided to take a local hike, retracing some footsteps from nearly 40 years ago.
My trip down memory lane took me to the Little River in Tennessee, near Elkmont, in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It was there in 1984 that my late friend Dean first introduced me to backpacking. That formative spring break trip marked the start of my adventure life–a gift that keeps giving, by way of Dean. He’s also the one that introduced me to paddling, and mountain biking, and so much more. Sadly, Dean passed away last year, way too soon.
I have a bunch of memories of that trip, starting with my apprehension about backpacking. It helped that I trusted Dean, though. He was a great partner and guide, because he knew a lot, and he shared all of it. He was curious and he noticed everything big and small: how another hiker secured his tent, incoming weather, or the complex human history of the park. Time spent with Dean was always full of discovery, and it went well beyond the outdoors.
Elkmont has some personal significance for me, obviously, but it has some notable history all its own. The region was occupied by the Cherokee until the 1830s, when they were forced West in a tragic period known as the Trail of Tears. Dean and I talked a fair amount about that one night in camp on our trip. The human history in the Smokies runs deep (a colossal understatement).
By the 1850s, Elkmont had become a prosperous logging community, providing lumber to the growing towns in the lowlands. Then around 1910, it evolved into a tourist destination through newly established passenger rail access (the “Elkmont Special”).
Around that time, two social clubs were founded in the area by wealthy Knoxville businessmen, along with a lodge and a resort hotel. Families flocked there to hunt and fish and swim in the creeks, and it was by all accounts a thriving community. Gatherings of the era often concluded with a round of singing the local song “Elkmont Will Shine.”
At that point, Elkmont was indeed shining…but change was on the horizon. In 1940, when the National Park was formally established, residents were given the option of selling their land or leasing it back from the government for the rest of their lifetimes. By 1992, the landowners had all passed on and the leases had expired. Over the next 30 years, the community mostly faded back into the forest. Just 18 of 70 buildings were preserved by the National Park Service.
Elkmont’s current condition outside of the historically preserved area is a difficult topic among locals, for obvious reasons. The landscape is dotted with chimneys, which stand among the trees like stubborn reminders of what once was. But there’s not much else. That’s progress to some, and a loss to others.
As for the present day, my hike was a seven-mile circuit that retraced a big chunk of our 1984 backpack. I paralleled the Little River for several miles before I crossed over a restored rail bridge, and then returned via Jake’s Creek. The structures at the trailhead are falling down, but the backcountry is lush and green, as I’m sure it was back on my first trip.
Thinking back to that first trip, we had ordered our maps by mail (a different era indeed). I remember that Dean caught and ate a wild trout, which catapulted him into outdoor idol status for me. I also recall that we found a modern hatchet at one of our campsites, he teased me for bringing “hundreds of pounds of lightweight gear,” and we’d combined booze with water because we’d run out of mixer (a college workaround if there ever was one).
There are only a handful of photos still around from our trip, one of which was a failed attempt at a self-timer shot.
That first trip was pure discovery. Oddly enough, I felt a lot of the same upon my return. The structures in Elkmont are certainly showing their age, as I know I am–but the backcountry remains unspoiled, and I never get bored with nature.
Forty years of enjoying the outdoors seems like a privilege, and I enjoyed every moment of my return to Elkmont– although I wished I could have shared it with Dean. As I walked alone through the woods and past the old foundations, I wondered what he would notice, what clever observations he would share, what he would say about the decisions of the past and present. Elkmont is at the center of the park movement, but it is also at the center of the anti-park movement–like two forces colliding among the chimneys and the trees. There’s so much going on here.
If I had said any of that to Dean, he would have rolled his eyes and had some witty response that stretched my world. Those times we shared were such a gift. I imagined that moment with him and smiled, as if he was there with me.